How long can a goldfish survive if you swallow it?

A man taking part in the drinking dare game Neknomination drank a pint with two fish floating in it. This is very much not a good idea, for you OR the goldfish.

This morning's Sun claims that one of the pallbearers at Margaret Thatcher's funeral downed a pint of beer with two live goldfish in it. Really, it does:

"Neknomination", for those unaware, is the hot new craze among the young folk. In theory, someone records themselves necking a big drink in one gulp, posts it on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media, and then nominates someone else to take their turn. In practice, it's a war of one-upmanship, with people going to ever-greater lengths to try and make their drink outrageous - like, say, doing it while skateboarding, or mixing absinthe with hot sauce, or riding a horse into Tesco. Unsurprisingly, it's causing a full-blown moral panic in the media.

But we're here today to discuss a more pertinent question: what would happen to a goldfish if you swallowed it? How long would it survive?

A human stomach is a pretty horrible place for a living creature - dark, acidic, and full of nasty gasses from the breakdown of food. Yet we know that a goldfish wouldn't die straight away thanks to that episode of Jackass where Steve-O swallows and throws up a goldfish, (apparently) unharmed. YouTube's full of people paying tribute to Mr O, like these students:

While the goldfish survives in the Jackass clip, this one is not so lucky. Don't do this at home, kids.

Looking through YouTube, we can see that the fish that survive the up-and-down of being tortured by show-offs do so if not in the stomach for a very long time, and also if they're swallowed with a lot of water. That makes sense, as it would water down the stomach acid and make it less damaging.

It's also worth saying that the goldfish in the pint glass pictured on the front of the Sun would likely have been dead before before being swallowed. Carbon dioxide is as poisonous for fish as it is for humans, and that's all the fish would have been breathing in. More than that, though, is that alcohol is commonly used as an effective way to euthanise fish - something clear like vodka, added to a fish tank, will make the fish fall asleep and not wake up.

This is all terribly depressing, so here's a video of some divers almost getting eaten by two humpback whales (which, while not fish, are here included as de facto allies of the fish kingdom):

(Although, of course, humpback whales have a throat that is about as wide as a grapefruit - who needs anything larger when living exclusively on krill? - and would be incapable of swallowing something as large as a man. Alas.)

UPDATE 12/02/2014: We've now heard from marine biologist Alasdair Lindop, who has some more science about a goldfish's chances:

Generally a stomach would be pretty inhospitable to a goldfish, largely due to the high acid content and you'd need a pretty large amount of water to dilute that to something hospitable for any length of time.

Whilst alcohol would certainly anaethetise the fish, I wonder how long it would take with the percentage of alcohol in a pint. Probably more problematic for the fish would be all the sugars and carbon increased carbon dioxide in the beer. Fish breathe by passing the water (or beer) directly over their blood vessels in their gills, so being in a different solution would certainly stress them out a lot. How long they could survive in an acidic, sugary fizzy environment with a bit of alcohol is not something I could tell you from the top of my head!

The Jackass thing, if I remember correctly, was really quick so although the fish would be stressed, it's nothing a good dunking in a large bucket of fresh water immediately after couldn't solve.

So to give a vague answer to your question: it would really depend on what was in the stomach when the goldfish got there. If there was a fair bit of fresh water in there to start with it could probably survive a short while. (I'm guessing 5 mins-ish, but that's a huge guess!) The amount of food eaten by someone in the hour or so before swallowing the fish will be important, because if the stomach is trying to digest food, the concentration of acid will be much higher.

If that doesn't kill it, suffocation probably will as what little dissolved oxygen there is will get used up fairly shortly, unless the participant has drunk a fair chunk of water.

No goldfish were harmed in the writing of this article. (Photo: Getty)

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

Photo: mdl70 via Flickr
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Childhood mythology is being revamped by digital monsters like Slenderman

The stories the younger generation tell one another are just as rich, and as terrifying.

“I am the spirit of dark and lonely water, ready to trap the unwary, the show-off, the fool...”

The eldritch tones of Donald Pleasance will breathe a chilly memory along the vertebrae of those of a certain age. That 1973 public information broadcast about water safety lingers long in the memory. But why? There was something about the hooded figure depicted beside the river where children cavorted that just resonated. A shadow, a memory, a whisper. It was as if we'd almost heard it before. It wasn't just a warning. It was a story.

Before Donald Pleasance kept Britain's children from its treacherous riverbanks, we had tales of ubiquitous river-hags. Two good examples are Peg Powler, who haunts the banks of the Tees, and Jenny Green Teeth, who stalks Shropshire's waterways.  Both of these terrifying water spirits live to drag youngsters to a watery lair. These monsters pan the world, from the native Penobscot people of Maine, with their child-luring swamp-woman Skwaktemus, to the Inuit's Qalupalik, a green-skinned water witch that reaches up from below the ice to snatch wayward and disobedient children.

These stories are geographically distant but carry essentially the same message: “Stay away from the water”. Predatory creatures embody a very real fear. The unimaginable nightmare of our children in real peril is blunted by the presence of a monster.

Children need stories as much as adults do; stories make sense of reality when reality is hard to understand. Stories are told to be re-told, to be embellished, to raise heroes and to make monsters.

For people of the Dark and Lonely Water generation, including me, it's easy to assume that today's kids have lost the art of storytelling. We say social media has diffused, has numbed, has snuffed the flame of imagination. Yet perhaps it hasn't. Perhaps we just got old. On the contrary, the stories the younger generation tell each other are just as rich. Monsters are still being made. This world of ours is still being understood.

There is real danger out there. There are real monsters. But now they come in new forms, they lurk in new lairs.

Today, the internet is the new hunting ground of the monster. Grooming, trolling, cat-fishing and scamming have become the MOs of the vile in our society and, as if in direct response, legends and myths have sprung from the same place.

Creepypasta, 4Chan and /nosleep are breeding colonies of legend. Forums and social media have taken the place of the skipping-rope chants and the childhood whispers. Young people still know Bloody Mary, yet Black-Eyed Kids and the Goatman have usurped her from her throne. Nefarious rituals and games like Hooded Man or Elevator to Another World have been born of the internet age, submitted as stories and experiences. Like the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water in the 70s, they have touched a common nerve.

The most iconic of these net-dredged horrors is Slenderman: born of a paranormal Photoshop competition, his legend has transmogrified into an internet Tulpa, the power of which played a significant part in the decision of 12-year-olds Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser to stab their friend Bella Leutner 19 times. He is strengthened with every share, every fan image, every account of his being. It is no wonder that he has become flesh in the hearts and minds of those who need him, who want to escape into his world.

The readers of the forums that bear these eldritch fruits know the content isn't real. Yet disbelief is intentionally suspended. As it says on the /nosleep board guidelines “Everything is true here, even if it's not. Don't be the jerk in the movie theater [sp] hee-hawing because monkeys don't fly.”  It's disrespectful to negate the skill or the talent that it takes to write a story or make an image on Photoshop. This leaves space for storytelling. We need stories.

These stories stir something inside us, lend a bellow to the flames of our imagination. Images, anecdotes and instructions - they are monsters we have the power to control. Online, we can pass on the whispers, we have the ability to interact with the shadows. Online we can be the purveyors of this mythology. We can tell each other stories. We can control. If we make a monster, it is ours. Most importantly, we can escape from reality and immerse ourselves in our monsters.

Not just monsters lurk online, there are games and rituals, rich in their own mythology. The illicit Ouija board in the parks and graveyards of my own childhood are dwarfed by the trans-cultural crucible of today's games. With the ingenuity of Koji Suzuki's cursed video in Ring, far eastern influence and technology are pervasive throughout. Japan can boast the ghost-summoning Satoru-kun, and the White Kimono game. Both are alleged to summon spirits, Satoru-kun specifically with a mobile phone. There are many more of these games sprouting up from all over the rest of the world eg.- Mexico's ' El Juego Del Libro Rojo' (Red Book game) and Portugal's Ritual da Televisão (Television ritual) and nearly all carry grave warnings.

These nebulous games, like the internet's monsters carry their own stories. Peruse Reddit and you'll find accounts and speculation from those who claim to have played and been changed or had their lives altered by what they've done. The comments below the hundreds of accounts begging for advice are a mix of sincerity and concern.

“Dude, luck only lasts so long, and even longer less when you tempt things you know nothing of.”

“OP, you messed up big time. You're always supposed to follow the rules of the game as completely as you can!”

“You idiot! Ghost games are not for play! Especially japanese ones, they are dangerous”

“Get some sage. Burn the sage, and wave it into every corner of every room in the house... I would recommend putting salt across doorways and window sills, anything that would be an 'entry' into the house, but it sounds like you may have summoned it inside the house”

Everything is true here even if it's not.

But how can we know for sure? Do we really know that the user didn't summon something terrible from the void they opened with one of these games?

That's what makes them so compelling. That's what makes Slenderman, Smile Dog and Jeff the Killer so iconic. Like that friend of your mate's brother who went mad after he did an Ouija board down the park, we are still whispering, we are still embellishing and interacting.

The internet is open, unchartered landscape, there are no rules of the real world in which to weave mythology and the quest is to be the creator of something that wriggles from our grasp and is embraced, formed and made flesh by a collective consciousness. Are we in some way thankful for these creatures that bring us together over oceans and time zones?

Phones and tablets in the hands of our children are frightening to us: they are the unknown, the window into an abyss. Yet from that abyss, we are like our ancestors, toasting heraldry and horror, and making new myths.

Hydra by Matt Wesolowski, published by Orenda Books is out now.